There are several unnecessarily complicated explanations for how the expression “on the rag” became a common slang for menstruation.
One is that women tried to fool the male members of their [Victorian] households into thinking the bloodstained cloths soaking in bleach under the claw-foot tub were leftover rags from the making of jams and jellies, never mind that jam making took place only once or twice a year. This might have been the practice in some homes, but even the most slovenly woman would not have wanted her menstrual blood needlessly on display every time someone came in to use the Necessary. Others talk of “rag bags” where women collected the last tattered remnants of household fabrics, which were then portioned out for flood control. And from a global perspective, rags were at the fancy end of the spectrum; women from non-Western cultures used grass, moss, papyrus, anything that could be counted on to hold an ounce or two. Anything that worked was what women used.
At the end of the [19th] century, commercial feminine protection became common, especially since the increasing popularity of mail-order catalogs allowed a woman to purchase it without causing the local pharmacist to suspect her vulgar addiction to menstruation. Reusable and disposable cloths were suddenly available, and waterproof, stain-shielding “sanitary aprons” formed a secure barrier between your clothing and your impudent menstrual blood.
Your late-nineteenth-century armory against the Red Baron(ess)
Of course some women chose neither store-bought protection nor any of the simpler homemade solutions. Women who were not afraid to put a little flair into their flow could create garments to rival any of today’s options. A German publication gives instructions on how to origami yourself yet another wonder of Teutonic engineering.
Toward the end of the century, when cloth was easier to come by, what happened to menstrual rags after they had served their purpose was an interesting indication of wealth and social status. A lady of reasonable wealth could afford to toss her soiled rags, purchased from a catalog for that singular purpose, into the outhouse pit. She wouldn’t even have to let her maids in on that particular vulnerable evidence of her humanity. The maids themselves, however, like most of woman- kind, still had to wash and reuse their own cloths. The main problem with that being, once these rags were cleaned, they had to be hung up and dried. Where?
From an unidentified nineteenth-century German publication, a page entitled “Underwear for Special Times”
Not on the clothesline, that’s for certain, unless your home adjoins an abattoir and you can pass them off as tiny butcher’s aprons (you would never, ever be able to completely bleach a reused sanitary napkin back to whiteness, and there would be no mistaking its true nature). And not over the fireplace either, for these reminders of the curse of Eve were hidden from all members of a household who didn’t use them. Even if you were alone during the day, you couldn’t be sure a neighbor wouldn’t call at your door, watching you through the window as you pinballed around your parlor, hiding menstrual rags like a meth head during a police raid.
“Oh, no! A knock in the darkness! It could be a murderer! He’ll see my jelly rags!"
Therefore, should you happen to catch a glimpse through a neighbor’s bedroom door of a drying rack set with menstrual cloths, you would know that particular family practiced frugality, either from sense or necessity. And they would know they have the kind of neighbor who peeps in bedrooms. Show some dignity, darling.
The above is an excerpt from the nonfiction book Unmentionable: A Victorian Lady's Guide To Sex, Marriage, And Manners by Therese Oneill, out Oct. 25 from Little Brown.
Images: Elizabeth Finch/Bustle; Little Brown